One of the simplest stories for a reporter to tell is “An important idiot did something stupid.” This can take the form of “Senator is caught taking bribes”, “Movie star gets arrested driving drunk” or even “religious leader says something offensive to people of other religions.”

1000 years from now, assuming we’re still here, we’ll have these same headlines, just with different people.

Since there will always be important idiots in our population, these stories, as a collective, are not news. They do not express a new trend in idiot behavior, nor do they offer context for how our view of the world should change because a particular important idiot did something stupid.

It is non-news masquerading as news. Unless it’s news that this person is capable of doing stupid things, it’s the telling of a story we already know.

If instead these stories expressed, for example, that there are now more incidences of a particular kind of idiot doing a particular idiotic thing, that might be newsworthy. That would inform us of a trend or change in the world at large we should know about, and hopefully take action on in some way. Or the report could explain what this persons peers or superiors are doing to prevent future idiocy. But to report on a singular instance of these things tells us little about the world we did not already know.

No matter how awesome any group of people is, you can always find someone doing something idiotic. No matter how awesome a government is, you can always find an idiot in it doing something stupid. No matter how peaceful a tribe or a nation is, you can always find an idiot in it committing acts of violence. A singular horrible or wonderful example does nothing to inform us unless the reporter does the work to put that event in context.

Non-news, news without context, is easy to generate. It takes less skill as a journalist to write these stories. Often these stories are more popular than better written stories about important things. The popular news is not the best news. The popular anything is rarely the best anything. The way we see the world is shaped by what is attractive and sells best, rather than what will give us a realistic perspective on the world and our place in it.

Whenever you read the news, or watch Fox or MSNBC, please keep the idiot theory in mind. If the arguing is all about what some idiot did, and how much of an idiot they were or were not, engage your better half and move along.

Related: I highly recommend the book Amusing Ourselves To Death to anyone who consumes news of any kind. And for fun, watch this satirical video by The Onion about empty news.

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16 Responses to “The Idiot Theory of News”

  1. Dan S |

    Some people are just amazed when someone does something they wouldn’t do, good or bad.

    Other annoying non-news items are regularly scheduled events and seasonal reminders. All of these sorts of “stories” should go on the “What Should I Do/Think/Wear/Remember Today” or “Community Events” channels. That would leave more time for real news like traffic accidents and crime. Oh wait, that’s just more stupid people doing stupid things.

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun |

      Dan: We, collectively, get the news we deserve. If we didn’t watch, they wouldn’t put it on. Of course we are all drawn to drama, and that’s ok. But we have to be careful about how we let those stories color our view of the world.

      Reply
  2. Sean Crawford |

    Nice idiot theory, Scott.
    I guess we both value Postman highly.
    It’s ironic how we say “we live in a media age” when people don’t know a simple concept like the 6 o’clock “infotainment.” To me this is as crazy as living in a ranching or forestry area, while being ignorant about cows or trees… The idiot box is great for some things, but it’s noneffective for news.

    I probably got the concept of infotainment from one of Postman’s books. I’m no TV addict.
    I often watch news for free in a cafe, while reading the newspaper, but I never kid myself that 6 o’clock moving pictures is “real news.”

    Reply
  3. Mark |

    This is probably a good moment to call to mind the basic laws of human stupidity. Especially relevant are the first two: “the number of stupid people is always underestimated” and “stupidity is independent of any other characteristic”. These combine to tell us that stupidity is common and evenly distributed in all populations. As you say Scott — that isn’t news.

    http://www.searchlores.org/realicra/basiclawsofhumanstupidity.htm

    Reply
  4. Shantnu Tiwari |

    Scott, sometimes it’s a case of feeling smug and high at the expense of someone else. As is “Haha, you are so stupid, I would never do something like that.”

    Of course, the ones pointing their fingers and laughing are armchair “experts”, who have rarely done anything, but have been given the mantle of “expert” by some media organisation.

    I remember sometime ago there was a really popular video on Youtube, based on a CNN news segment. It was about a Miss America contestant, who forgot her lines, said something silly, panicked, and made more mistakes when correcting herself.

    The comments mostly said things like “Haha dumb blond, stay at home.”

    What no one commented was, the girl was only 17-18 years old. She was probably terrified. How many of those poking fun had ever tried to go on stage, and speak even 2 lines?

    Of course, it helps that many of these news items reinforce our prejudices, which is why they maybe popular.

    Reply
  5. Jason |

    Any news is history and all history is interpretive. When FoxNews chooses ‘Fair & Balanced’ as their purpose statement for their website should we really believe they have captured the news (i.e. the historical event) more accurately and truthfully then their competitors? At times, probably, but as an overall enterprise, I’m not sure how such a claim could be made. All news is told from a point of view, especially from those who are adamant that they are simply trying to report the facts, or more pointedly, the truth. This is not to say that any interpretation of the news is valid, only that historical interpretation (and the news) tends to be more complicated than most people realize. And besides, is the news truly looking out for our well-being when they use ‘an important idiot did something stupid’ or are they simply trying to drive ratings so they can continue to increase the bottom line?

    Reply
  6. Kathi Soniat |

    Now if you change “important” to “high profile” you are truly on to something.

    Reply
  7. Pavel |

    While watching TV, you get all sorts of opportunities to feel morally and intellectually superior to the people of influence you see on the screen. I know some people who watch FoxNews/MSNBC for that exact reason. So it’s often just an ego booster disguising as news.

    Reply
  8. Joe McCarthy |

    Agreed, but I sometimes think it’s idiocy [nearly] all the way down. There are market forces – and thus potential conflicts of interest (and/or perverse incentives) – driving the “production” of nearly all news.

    For example, with respect to “news” about trends, typically based on reported studies, I’ve increasingly come to believe that all studies are wrong (and very few are useful). This skepticism extends to the realm of medical science, which one would think (or hope) would have the most rigorous verification and validation processes, and yet In cancer science, many “discoveries” don’t hold up.

    I think we all need to be skeptically vigilant about any “news” we consume.

    Reply
  9. Dok |

    I could not disagree more. When important people do idiotic things, this usually has a negative impact on society. This alone makes these stories newsworthy. But, even more importantly, these news articles serve a very important task: disapprove of and punish idiotic behaviour. This is important to make it clear to other important idiots that such behaviour will have negative consequences for them.

    Just take your example: the corrupt senator. Do you really want newspapers to ignore an incident like that?

    Reply
  10. Jonathan Stray |

    You make a really good point, and there’s a lot of subtle stuff here about who supplies “meaning” etc. But I’d like to push back a bit against the idea that all the stupid stuff we see in the world is the result of individual idiots. Public health researchers have shown that there are societal “risk factors” in many different fields, and point out that a belief in the “lone idiot” theory of behavior often prevents people for looking for solutions.

    Take for example this paper on how crimes are reported which notes,

    By categorizing violence with other public health problems and applying the same scientific tools used to control other epidemics, public health proponents believe they can convince Americans that violence is predictable and potentially preventable. They see their task as no different from the one public health experts faced in the 1960s when they advised that adding safety features to cars, wearing seat belts, and not drinking and driving would reduce automobile deaths and injuries. Until the 1960s, traffic accidents were blamed on “the nut behind the wheel”. Prevention strategies were limited to advising people to drive more safely. When researchers began identifying the role of societal and environmental risk factors in auto crashes, public health advocates took the findings to the media and sought to change the way these events were covered. The media began including the type of cars involved, road and weather conditions, and whether people were driving drunk or wearing seatbelts. Soon, perceptions of the causes of auto injuries and deaths changed, and more social policies were enacted to discourage drunk driving, build safer roads, and force car manufacturers to design safety features into cars. The rate of automobile deaths and injuries slowed (Stevens, 1997).

    All of which is to say that, yes, I agree that “trend” stories are what we really want here, but also trend stories which look elsewhere than individual stupidity for the reasons these things happen.

    Reply
  11. Dorian Taylor |

    Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.

    —Stewart Brand

    Reply
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